Sam Wallace: The clock may be ticking on Florentino Perez's privileged Real Madrid empire

TALKING FOOTBALL: It is remarkable Real continue to thrive while people take to the streets to protest

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The Independent Football

The biggest crowd in Madrid on Saturday was not the one at the Santiago Bernabeu to see David Moyes’ Real Sociedad disposed of 4-1, where the home fans once again jeered Gareth Bale whom they feel – ironic, given Real Madrid’s attitude towards revenue sharing – is showing signs of greediness.

Instead, the weekend’s biggest crowd was the 100,000-plus people who attended the Madrid rally for the new left-wing political force Podemos, where a different kind of greediness was on the agenda. Podemos opposes the austerity measures of the ruling elite and was already leading some polls in November ahead of the ruling centre-right Popular Party (PP) and the traditional left-wing PSOE, who have divided up power since General Franco died in 1975.

For the footballers of Real Madrid, the chill wind of public spending cuts and 50 per cent unemployment among under-25s belongs to a different world as they leave their stadium behind the blacked-out windows of the team coach. Spain was bailed out by the European Union to the tune of €41bn (£31bn) in 2012 but it has not stopped Real and Barcelona buying many of the best footballers in the world since then, including some notable names from the Premier League.

 

At the heart of club president Florentino Perez’s vision for Madrid is the redevelopment of the Bernabeu with a hotel and shopping complex, complete with the naming rights deal with Abu Dhabi trailed last week. Stopping him from doing so is the European Commission investigation, first disclosed in these pages, which is looking at allegations of illegal state aid from Madrid city council over the dubious deals that delivered Real the land it needed around the Bernabeu.

The Madrid regional supreme court has put a halt to proceedings for now and a decision from the EC is pending. The city council has pushed hard on behalf of the club, lobbying Brussels and claiming that the deal was “unfortunately, the only possible solution”. There are municipal elections in May, and a new council that Podemos either controlled or had a stake in would have no such obligation. In fact, presenting the deal as grossly unfair for the taxpayer would be a very easy win for a new administration.

“Tick-tock” is the election cry of the Podemos rally, whose supporters believe time is running out for the old order, like the PP politicians who are regulars in the VIP areas of the Bernabeu. You might say it is tick-tock for Perez to push through the redevelopment of the Bernabeu in a year of potential change, culminating with a November general election. Tick-tock for the Premier League clubs who have sold their best players to Real over the years.

Perez is an obvious target for Podemos and its leader Pablo Iglesias, at 36 just three years older than the Real goalkeeper Iker Casillas. More dangerous for any political party is the prospect of taking on the best-supported club in the country, with fans all over Spain. Even with the surge of support for Podemos, it would have to think twice about cutting Real down to size. For years football clubs in Spain have been considered untouchable, even over tax debts, but that can change.

The EC investigation into Real centres on the packet of land known as Las Tablas, passed into the ownership of the football club by the city council in 1998 as part of a deal to settle debts between the two parties. When, in 2011, the council discovered – and “discovered” is a generous assessment – that legally it could not cede Las Tablas, the land was valued at €22.7m – its 1998 valuation was €488,000. In lieu of payment, the council gave Real land of equivalent value around their stadium crucial to the new development.

Ultimately, it will be the EC investigation that decides Real’s fate in this regard, but if the transaction is declared null and void no amount of compensation will bring the land back into the club’s ownership. Under Spanish property law, public land can only be exchanged for public land and the club have nothing to come to the table with.

The EC may yet decide that, with small signs of recovery in the Spanish economy, a development like the one proposed at the Bernabeu is a compromise worth making for the jobs it brings. But if it does so, the experts say that the EU laws on state aid might as well be torn up. Real have denied receiving any illegal state aid.

They were busy again in the January transfer window, signing the Brazilian Lucas Silva and the Norwegian prodigy Martin Odegaard, motivated in part by the belief that they too might find themselves hit with a similar transfer embargo to the one imposed on Barcelona.

Madrid’s modern success had been built on signing the best players for the biggest fees and the highest wages. As recruitment strategies go it is basic stuff, but it has become their identity. The redevelopment is expected to add a further €12m to the annual revenue earned by the stadium alone, as Real keep up their pursuit of the biggest names and the best players.

In a country where unemployment stands at one in four some might say it is remarkable that Real continue to thrive while, all around them, people take to the streets to protest against the hardship of life in Spain.

Podemos is a vocal critic of the offshore Castor gas storage project that Perez’s construction company ACS was involved in. At a cost of €1.3bn it was aborted when hundreds of earthquakes were triggered off the Catalan coast – as had been predicted by many experts. On further examination, the deal was demonstrated to have been designed to privatise profits and socialise losses. The EC is also investigating.

Over the years, Madrid, and in many respects Barcelona, have been afforded privileges by the Spanish government. They were two of just four clubs not forced to switch to plc status under legislation passed in 1990, which affords them benefits not available to many of the debt-ravaged clubs they beat on such a regular basis.

Judging from the outraged Spanish government reaction in 2013 to the EC investigation into illegal state aid, one could surmise that many in power believe what is good for Real Madrid is good for the country. As for the talks between the Liga clubs about a more equitable division of television revenues, they seem simply to have gone away.

Now Perez looks to the new Gulf oil markets for part of the funding that will finance the next round of Real superstar acquisitions. He does not put his own money into the club, unless you count his €150 annual membership fee, so the cash has to come from somewhere and which politician would be foolish enough to deny this famous club what they need? None so far but, as Saturday showed, the mood in Spain is changing.

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